Technologies of Ascription: How Does a Dementia Diagnosis Acquire its Symbolic Power of Exclusion in Later Life?

Sébastien Libert, Paul Higgs


Amidst the widespread stigma and exclusion attached to dementia in dominant narratives of successful ageing, this article addresses a gap in the scientific literature concerning our understanding of the medicalization of cognitive decline as a natural phenomenon. To this end, it explores how a dementia diagnosis acquires its symbolic power of exclusion in later life through an ethnography of cognitive rehabilitation therapy in two memory clinics in a southern European nation. It argues that this symbolic power of exclusion is locally produced through the meaning making practices of therapists and researchers administering regular cognitive training therapy and exercises to support autonomy. It shows how the different steps involved in rehabilitation play a role in dividing later life by defining and reifying a category of abnormal ageing during the cognitive assessment, and by applying a confrontational approach exposing decline. It shows how this approach generates the position of older adults who can be rehabilitated against those who cannot; the latter representing a “failed” ageing in the narrative of successful ageing. This article proposes the adoption of the concept of “technologies of ascription” to characterize this process of exclusion through reification and confrontation of “abnormal cognitive decline.” The paper argues that such practices are central to the local production of the symbolic power attached to a dementia diagnosis as well as its capacity to fragment later life. Finally, it argues for the utility of this concept in offering new opportunities for anthropology to characterize exclusion in later life through medicalization.


Dementia; Exclusion; Ascription; Successful Ageing; Failed Ageing; Technology

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